Around the world in 30 days

By now its over. 12,000 miles of punishing travel in cars at least two decades old; a month of route-finding and time-checking, of worrying about fuel supplies and broken dynamos. The survivors of the 1993 London—Sydney rally will have posed in front of the famous Opera House, heard the speeches, collected their cups, toasted themselves and each other. Whether John Griffiths and Neville Marriner were photographed cheering or crying in their beer, whether they reached Sydney at all, I can't tell as I write this half-way through Nick Brittain's momentous commemoration of the first such rally, 25 years ago. But I will be scanning the bulletins for news of a humble Ford product, that family favourite, the Cortina.

Not, of course, the sort of Cortina dad would take the family on holiday in. This is a Cortina Lotus MkII, blazoned with the name Unipart, and sporting what appears to be a chimney on the roof. It represents the work of 12 months, and it carries the goodwill of 5000 companies.

Griffith and Marriner are racers, not rallymen, both more usually seen on the circuits in MGV8 racing. But for an endurance event such as this, split-second stage timing is not a high priority, so they are not worried by this new challenge. And both feel that they are "mechanically literate", important when there are no back-up vehicles, spares must be carried on board, and repairs done "in house".

Originally red (MkIls came in a choice of colour as well as the famous white-with-green-flash of the first model), the Unipart car had led a low-mileage life on the road when Griffiths bought it 12 months ago. An early MkII, the 1967 car had been restored, but there was much to be done. Griffiths and Marriner chose Nick Mason, whose name is as well known in historic rally circles as his (unrelated) namesake is in historic racing. Amongst other things, he prepared Ted Toleman's Range-Rover for the Paris-Dakar raid, and he is a successful competitor in Cortinas. Mason's job was made easier by a relaxation of the original "pre-1968 only" rule; latterly a five-year leeway was added, which allowed entrants to subsitute younger and tougher parts. Hence the Unipart car has sturdy 2-litre Pinto propulsion instead of delicate Lotus power.

Whether the five-year rule reflects a belief that exact period cars simply couldn't make it to Australia, or the acceptance that scrutineering can never be tough enough to satisfy everyone is unclear. But wherever the line is drawn, someone will stick a toe over it — if not an entire lower limb — and certainly another entry arrived at our Silverstone session with a sophisticated alloy twin-cam which was about as appropriate to the car as a cellphone in a Robin Hood film.

John Griffiths already had a relationship with Unipart, so the parts company's backing fell into place easily. Allan Shriver, Unipart's Press spokesman, agrees that this was a relatively cheap operation for them, a one-off undertaking which should result in good coverage in the motoring media no matter what the result, especially as their car is such an eye-grabbing sight. In fact the crew has nicknamed it the Pompidou Centre because it has all its pipes on the outside. But as well as publicity, Shriver explains, the company has made this the focus of a three-month fund-raising effort for Save The Children, through all the group's employees and agents. When you stand close to the car you realise that the grey tint over its white body is actually the names of 5000 companies associated with Unipart (distributors, agents, dealers) who have contributed to the fund.

Success in an event like this means arriving in Sydney in one piece, and the specification of the car reflects this. It's no lightweight flyer with highly strung engine squeezing out every last horsepower two litres can give. Instead, it follows the spec of Bill Bengry's car in the 1968 event, which made it to Sydney without the intensive care needed for the works Cortina. Toughness has been bolted in from stem to stern, and the power-plant built up to thrive on whatever lean diet local fuel supplies offer. Yet it produces the goods: breathing through its single downdraught Weber twin-choke, the 2-litre sohc musters about 130bhp at 5500rpm, which sounds high revs but represents only a mild peak in a pretty full-bodied torque curve. Improved gas flow in the cylinder head helps the unit spin up to 7500, while a large oil-cooler not only cools the slippery stuff but also boosts the total capacity of Unipart's best. This is a much brawnier package than the Mkll's original 1558cc Lotus twin-cam, which in Special Equipment form with its peaky cams and high cr of 9.5:1 developed 115bhp — and a reputation for fragility which made a trip to Sydenham a brave undertaking, let alone one to Sydney. (Works competition cars were another matter: under the guidance of Terry Hoyle and Peter Ashcroft, the dohc unit was persuaded to release a good 200bhp for the race track, and a torquey 165 for rallying.)

Gearchanges come courtesy of a slightly younger Ford, the MkIII Cortina; it's a slow changer, but tough, with a very low first and a wide ratio spread. The Atlas rear axle is reinforced with skid-plates, and has an LSD inserted, while the competition clutch comes from AP. Uprated McPherson struts keep the sump out of the dirt, while the other end retains the conventional leaf springs but uses a twin gas shock absorber conversion. This is one area where the MkII differed from the MkI, which was converted from stock to Lotus spec at Hethel and gained a sophisticated but typically fragile A-frame, trailing arm and coil-spring rear suspension set-up. For the MkII, production was brought in-house, to Ford's new competition facility at Boreham, where standard Cortina 1600GTs were altered to accept the Lotus twin-cam engine, keeping the family car's cart-springs, but lowered and stiffened. At the same time the name was reversed from Lotus Cortina to Cortina Lotus.

Although the MkII was shorter overall than its predecessor, it was slower (104mph instead of 107) because it was heavier. Yet even with strengthening it was never quite tough enough to swallow a hammering on international rallies without bending in the middle. So Mason has paid a great deal of attention to stiffening the shell. As well as the normal seam-welding and plating, he has installed a roll-cage which triangulates the suspension pick-up points and spreads the point loads more evenly across the shell. Surprisingly it is not the Middle Eastern sections which are expected to be the roughest, but some of the Australian roads which build up into washboard corrugations which at a critical speed can punch a vehicle off the road. Braking is also uprated from the stock Lotus arrangement, switching to ventilated front discs, from the Capri 2.8i, but retaining dainty little drums behind.

Inside, according to Marriner, "it's all about comfort". There are elbow rests for both inhabitants, and plenty of pockets and shelves for road-books, maps, clip-boards and other rallying detritus. (Remembering how much navigational debris I managed to accumulate during the 3000 miles of the Pirelli Marathon, I'm glad I don't have to do the cleaning-up after this trip of four times as long.) Dash layout is clear and tidy, with an electronic Terratrip reading the times and distances; national historic rallying now demands only suitable period mechanical devices such as Haldas — out of production for years and as precious as emeralds. Almost every electrical component has its own resettable trip instead of fuses.

Unipart's component list is enormous, and Carings of Upshire, Mason's firm, has naturally fitted one of everything possible, from engine parts to overalls. As to spares, the philosophy has been to take only replacements for anything which will bring the car to a sudden halt; anything else must be patched or pirated.

Shortly before the London—Sydney started, I joined the team at Silverstone Circuit's rally course to sample the final shake-down trials. After being strapped into the navigator's seat, we set off into the mud to see how it went. And the surprise was how comfortable it was. I've been pummelled in outrageous road-rally machinery and practically blendered in a works Lancia, but there's no doubt that Marriner's comment about comfort is the guiding principle here. Good ground clearance and long suspension travel allied with capable shock-absorption give an easy ride, not loose, just well-controlled. This was not a rough piece of track, of course, but with at least one of the planned competitive sections stretching for an alarming 130 miles, the crew's endurance has to be one of the prime factors.

As we bucked and slewed through the mud and assassinated one or two marker cones, Marriner described the handling as "a little understeery," but added that this was probably not such a bad thing with two racers taking turns behind the wheel. At that time they were still experimenting with tyres, looking for the right combination of tough sidewall and an all-round tread — not too knobbly so as to last — and prime contender was the ubiquitous Colway, the firm which has brought respectability to the idea of competition remoulds. The team hoped that four spares on board would see them to Perth, where four more were to be waiting.

From the overhead exhaust (aimed at successful river fording and staying out of the way of aggressive rocks) issues a deep but not intrusive note, with a strong-sounding bark when the throttle is wide open. I sat back, cradled in the grippy seat, watching Marriner swing the padded wheel and flick between third and second gear as the boxy Dagenham best-seller scrabbled among the stones and leapt cheerfully into the water-splash, and I almost wished it was me facing a month of pressure and discomfort half-way around the world. . . G C